Underdog Strategies Work Best in Education

What the cool teachers do on their day off

Mario Piombo, Director, Innovation
Published on June 7, 2018

“Where are all the cool people?” asked Dr. Barbara Nemko, Napa County Superintendent of Schools. “The coolest people are all right here at the InnovatEd™ Conference!”

On this Cinco de Mayo — together with the Napa County Office of Education — NapaLearns hosted a day of high quality, professional learning opportunities. Taught by teachers for teachers, 80 educators attended to learn how to use the latest tech tools and strategies in their classrooms and inspire students.

In addition, the day was kicked off with a keynote by project based learning (PBL) guru, author, and Superintendent of Ross Schools, Dr. Michael McDowell, who invited attendees to a call to action for innovation. Here’s what he had to say.

Going from 33.3 → 63.6 or How David beats Goliath

Dr. McDowell opened with a very interesting story: Political scientist I. A. Toft analyzed the last 200 years of warfare to determine what percentage of the time does the weaker army win. He calculated it to be 33.3%. However, Toft went on to discover that when the underdogs acknowledge their weaknesses and break the rules of engagement, they win 63.6% of the time. Changing the conventional way of doing business doubles the number of wins.

McDowell encouraged educators to think about implementing underdog strategies in their classrooms: What would an underdog do? It may not be the prettiest or flashiest innovation. For example, when anesthesia was discovered, its use spread like wildfire; it was a momentous discovery. On the other hand, something as simple as hand washing can be equally effective in preventing the spread of germs. McDowell posited that the innovations we need in education are more like hand washing. “The simple, effective strategies and innovations are the ones that will move the needle in education.”

3 Underdog Strategies

  1. From what ‘works’ to ‘+1’: Just about every innovation in education improves learning outcomes — from web-based learning to class size to collaborative learning — but McDowell warned that they all don’t have the same impact. Some provide less than 20% of a year of learning in the school year. He encouraged teachers to look for “what works to +1” such that learners achieve greater than one year of learning in one year’s time.
  2. Hidden lives: Teachers can’t see 80% of what’s happening in their classrooms. McDowell said, “If you listen to your kids talk, approximately 80% of feedback they obtain is from their peers and 80% of that is wrong.” If teachers can change the accuracy of that feedback, it would double the rate of learning. Finding innovations for making that feedback visible is an example of a hand washing strategy.
  3. Best fit: McDowell stated that there is no such thing as single, high impact, instructional strategy — success in teaching depends on meeting students where they are in their learning. As students learn, teachers need to shift their strategies from lecturing or direct teaching to another approach. He suggested that educators determine where learners are and then come up with the method that fits.
The 3 levels of knowledge

Expertise Has 3 Levels: Surface, Deep, and Transfer

According to McDowell, expertise falls into three levels: Surface, or ‘I know facts’; Deep, ‘I can relate the facts’; and Transfer, ‘I can apply what I know to another situation.’ Rigorous PBL means having all of these things.

More important, McDowell states, than learning subjects at the Surface, Deep and Transfer levels is that learners at all grade levels are aware of it and can talk about it. Helping children learn means helping them to track their own proficiency and efficacy so that they have a clear idea of where they are and how to move forward.

Teachers are successful if they can ask students in their classrooms about their learning and they respond, “Here’s where I am, here is where I’m going, and this is how I’ll get there.”